Senate approves Joint Majors Program, discusses course evaluations

Sarah Church, chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy, described a new Joint Majors Program. Russell Berman, chair of the Provost's Course Evaluation Committee, and Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, described ways to improve the university's course evaluation system.

L.A. Cicero Sarah Church, professor of physics, speaks at the Faculty Senate

Sarah Church, professor of physics, speaks at the Faculty Senate about a proposal for a new Joint Majors Program.

The Faculty Senate on Thursday approved a template to be used to create a pilot Joint Majors Program in which two departments may create a new joint major – offering undergraduate students exciting opportunities for interdisciplinary study.

In a unanimous voice vote, the senate approved a six-year pilot period for the new Joint Majors Program (JMP). The programs would be designed to allow undergraduates to explore the connections between – and to master – two fields of study. Unlike a double major, in which students complete all the coursework required in each major, a joint major would involve some reduction in requirements in both majors.

"What you'll notice about the template is that it is quite short – it's a page," said physics Professor Sarah Church, chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP), which developed the proposal.

"That's deliberate, because one of the things we realized very early on is that this is a great opportunity and the program could evolve in ways that we can't conceive of. It's an exciting opportunity for students and departments to bring together two subjects, and to create ideas at the interface – and that the most important thing for us to do was not limit that kind of activity. So the template is sparse."

Church said a JMP has two distinguishing features: It is created through the academic and intellectual vision of two departments, and it includes an "integrative experience," such as a capstone project for students that would bring both disciplines together.

Under the pilot program, deans will review the JMP proposal; if they approve the program they will present it to the Committee on Review of Undergraduate Majors, which monitors the academic quality and effectiveness of Stanford's undergraduate degree-granting and honors programs.

Church said it is expected that JMPs approved during the current academic year could begin in the fall of 2014.

Course evaluations

In another Thursday presentation, Russell Berman, chair of the Course Evaluation Committee, unveiled a proposal for a new questionnaire that is "shorter and smarter" and can be customized to the specific character of each class.

Berman said the new form has 17 questions, compared with the 34 questions on the current form.

"Those 17 questions include some customizable elements," he said. "We're asking faculty to indicate the learning goals of their course. We're suggesting up to four."

"Similarly, we're asking faculty to indicate which course components they want to have evaluated," said Berman, a professor of comparative literature and of German studies. "Do you want the lecture to be evaluated? Do you want the textbook to be evaluated, or the service-learning component?"

Berman said that in focus groups, students expressed extensive irritation with the length and repetitiveness of the current questionnaire, and a lot of cynicism and confusion about what happens with the forms. They said they gave less than full attention to filling out the forms due to time constraints.

Then committee's report, which was distributed to the senate, said the proposed form will have five key features:

  • It will be customizable to fit the specific characteristics of each class. Customizing the form requires the instructor to indicate, in a pre-questionnaire, those distinctive features of a class that should be evaluated. Instructors will be able to add their own questions.
  • It will emphasize student learning, including student responsibility for learning, rather than – as is now the case – focusing nearly exclusively on the instructor.
  • It will list the course learning goals, as designated by the instructor, and students will be asked whether the class has met those goals. Courses with "Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing" breadth designation must include at least one learning goal pertinent to that "Way," and results of that question will be sent to the committee overseeing that requirement.
  • It should be "smart," automatically filling in students' degree program, major, minor, year and similar demographic data points that can be obtained when students sign in to complete the form.
  • It should be designed for use on various devices, including laptops, tablets and smartphones. The interface should be user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

The committee recommended that instructors should set aside 15 minutes during the last week of class to permit students to work on the form in class, although they should be able to amend, complete and submit the form through the end of the examination period. Instructors should explain the importance of the course evaluation process as a responsibility to the Stanford community.

The committee also recommended publishing student responses to the question, "What would you want another student to know about this class?"

The full minutes of the Feb. 20 meeting will be available on the Faculty Senate website in the coming weeks. The minutes will include the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations. The final senate meeting of the quarter will be held March 6.